Hey, Ronnie, can you hand me that funnel?” Steve Irving, co-founder of the Hopkinsville Brewing Company, asked as he straightened up on his ladder. “You’re going to be an assistant brewer today.”
Ronnie Lee, a regular at the brewery, set down his beer and turned from the bar to the 2.5-barrel brewing system just a few feet away. He handed Irving a wide-mouthed green funnel and, anticipating the next request, passed Irving a bag of hops to dump in the top of the fermenter.
“I assume you’re gonna need these next,” Lee said.
It was just after 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and customers trickled into the Hopkinsville craft brewery by twos and threes. Here, though, “customer” has a false ring of formality. These are friends—and in a sense, more than a few are founders. A prominent plaque on the wall honors the friends and Hopkinsville community members—168 of them—who donated money through a Kickstarter campaign to make Hopkinsville Brewing Company a reality. Individual gifts ranged from $25 to $10,000. Altogether, they totaled $40,044—a tremendous vote of community confidence in the vision of co-founders Kate and Steve Irving.
Hopkinsville Brewing Company is just one example of the increase in Kentucky craft brewing. According to data from the Kentucky Guild of Brewers, craft breweries in Kentucky—defined as those producing fewer than 50,000 barrels per year—numbered just five in 2009. In 2016, there were 35 Kentucky craft breweries, with more scheduled to open this year. Tastes are expanding as well, with more consumers than ever interested in new beer varieties and flavor profiles.
The real impact of craft brewing, however, goes beyond what’s in the glass. Throughout Kentucky, craft breweries have become community hubs, championing local culture, local business and, of course, local beer.
“Tastes are changing,” said Derek Selznick, executive director of the guild. “People are expecting quality products, whether that’s eating locally or buying fresh farm vegetables. They want the same from their beer. They want to know where it comes from.”
Community is a key factor in the rapid growth of Kentucky’s craft brewing industry, according to Selznick. Today’s beer drinkers are looking for unique flavors, local ingredients, investment in local economies and the unique social space that craft breweries provide.
“You see that with Braxton Brewing [in Covington]—they just did a beer release for Dark Charge, one of their stouts, and they had 5,000 people come out,” Selznick said. “You see it with Third Turn Brewing [Louisville]—they look at themselves as a community hub and have people help decorate their Christmas tree. Or it’s West Sixth [Lexington] with their Pay-it-Forward Cocoa Porter—they dedicate a portion of the proceeds of all the sales of that beer to a charity.
“We really feel like we want to engage with the community and be part of that community.”
Hopkinsville Brewing Company is a newcomer to Kentucky craft brewing, having just opened on Labor Day 2016. Already, though, it’s bringing the community together in a unique way. The Irvings aren’t Hopkinsville natives—they’re Army combat veterans who put down roots in Hopkinsville after the Army moved them to Fort Campbell. For the amount of love and work they’ve invested in Hopkinsville, though, they might as well have lived there all their lives.
“We had an idea that we could make downtown better, bringing more people here by putting the brewery here,” Kate said. “We had this dream of helping to rejuvenate the downtown area, so we chose to renovate a derelict building in our downtown area—you could see daylight through the bricks. Our goal in all of this has been to be community-oriented.”
Hopkinsville Brewing has invested in local business partnerships, commissioning Jim Creighton and Shannon Creighton, father-and-son owners of the Hopkinsville business Heirloom Table Home, to make the brewery’s wooden signs, flight boards and mash paddle.
The brewery also reinvests part of its earnings in Hopkinsville, donating a portion of its monthly sales to a local nonprofit. During a community-wide reading initiative hosted by the local arts council, the brewery created a special beer in honor of the reading material—the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. The brewery donated to the arts council $1 from each pint sold of Red Death Belgian Quad, which was named in honor of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Housed in a beautifully restored early 20th-century Ford garage, family-friendly Hopkinsville Brewing Company has plenty of comfortable seating, big windows and a noticeable absence of television screens. It evokes an older tradition.
“The concept of the tavern in America dates back to its earliest days, when we first started setting up towns in North America,” Steve said. “It was a community gathering place. We went to great lengths to try not to be seen as a bar. We have chess, checkers and laid-back music, and we encourage people to talk to one another, and our staff members engage with customers as well. We want to be the downtown community gathering place.”
Hopkinsville Brewing Company is just one of a growing number of craft breweries in Kentucky. Here are four more to add to your must-visit list.
Dry Ground Brewing
Housed in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant, Dry Ground Brewing Company is a key player in the ongoing revitalization of Paducah’s midtown area. With a lineup of innovative beers on tap in a unique, vintage space, Dry Ground is preserving a piece of history and catalyzing business growth in Paducah.
After Coca-Cola vacated the building in 2006, it sat empty for seven years. Dry Ground co-founders Ed and Meagan Musselman purchased the plant in 2013, renovating a piece of local history to house their brewery. The “Coke Plant” also leases space to other tenants, including Pipers Tea & Coffee, a yoga studio, a piano studio and more.
“This building is an architectural wonder,” said Andy Wiggins, head brewer at Dry Ground. “Preserving this is a statement to the community that we want to invest in this building that is, to an extent, sacred to the community and is obviously quite beautiful and worth saving.”
Paducah has enjoyed a wave of high-quality business growth in recent years, and Wiggins noted that Dry Ground is one of the businesses setting the standard of excellence. He hastens to add that Dry Ground isn’t just for craft beer nerds. It’s a thriving social space organized around the democratic ideal of the pint—a drink everyone can enjoy.
“I don’t only make beer for people who are snobs or aficionados. I make beer for rednecks,” said Wiggins, who grew up in nearby Ballard County. “I make beer
White Squirrel Brewery
White Squirrel Brewery’s production area is tiny, even for a craft brewery, taking up only a corner of the brewery’s kitchen. Brewing happens late at night, and the equipment is stowed away inconspicuously when the kitchen opens the next day. For White Squirrel, though, small is a good thing. It’s an opportunity to use premium ingredients and painstaking methods to create great beer every time.
The brewery is the brainchild of three friends who attended Western Kentucky University together—Damon Wilcox, Jason Heflin and Sean Stevens. It’s named for the white squirrels frequently seen in Bowling Green, especially on the WKU campus, and its small-scale focus allows for a strong attention to detail.
“We try to use as many local ingredients as we can, and we give our grains back to local farmers to be fed to livestock or to use for fertilizer,” said Stevens, operating partner at White Squirrel. “It’s just one big, happy collaboration.”
One thing that sets White Squirrel apart from many other craft breweries is that it boasts a full restaurant. If you visit, make plans to stay for dinner.
“I love their food,” said James Lovett, a White Squirrel regular. “I think I’ve had everything on this menu at least once. I started coming because it was local, and between the food, the friendly staff and the great beer, I kept coming back.”
Braxton Brewing Company
Braxton Brewing Company may have moved into a spacious taproom and brew house, but it’s never forgotten its roots in a garage. From the garage-inspired décor to a deliberately open atmosphere, Braxton prides itself on being an incubator for innovation.
Like many craft brewers, Braxton co-founder Evan Rouse started brewing his own beer at home in the garage. As he honed his skills and started winning brewing awards, his vision grew. Rouse enlisted his brother, Jake Rouse (now CEO), along with his roommates Jonathan Gandolf (marketing manager) and James Norris (head of finance) to develop the business plan.
Nearly two years after opening, they’re still fueling innovation and brewing outstanding beer. Braxton opens at 8 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, offering free wi-fi, the use of a projector and electronic whiteboards and a unique coffee blend roasted by a local business.
“We want our brewery to be a third place—not work or home, but a place where people go to be inspired and work on whatever it is that inspires them,” said Gandolf. “We partnered with Carabello Coffee out of Newport, and they roast coffee for us, and we invite entrepreneurs or people who work remotely into this space. We’ve seen companies literally start and grow out of our space.”
West Sixth Brewing
A pioneer among Kentucky craft brewers, West Sixth was the first craft brewery in Kentucky to can its beers rather than bottling them, the first to make a production IPA, and an early promoter of late-addition hops for flavor and aroma. The brewery isn’t sitting on its laurels, though. Its motivation is to create an excellent product while making a difference in the community it’s part of.
West Sixth invests in the community by supporting nonprofits, partnering with local businesses, maintaining environmentally friendly business practices, and creating a supportive work environment for employees.
West Sixth continues to innovate, most recently through West Sixth Farm, a 120-acre property in Franklin County. Opening this year, West Sixth Farm will grow ingredients for the brewery’s beers—from standard ingredients like hops and barley to specialty items such as sorghum, squash, cherries and raspberries.
“Brewing is an agricultural act,” co-founder Ben Self said. “We make a product that is made of ingredients that grow from the earth, but so often, people don’t think of beer as that. They think of it as this thing that comes out of a factory. What we hope to do with the farm is to reconnect people back to that.”
IF YOU GO:
Hopkinsville Brewing Company
102 East 5th Street,
Hopkinsville, (270) 987-3115
Suggested Brew: Batwood Vanilla Bourbon Porter (6.7% ABV, 25.9 IBU)
Braxton Brewing Company
27 West 7th Street
Covington, (859) 261-5600
Suggested Brew: Dead Blow Tropical Stout (7.2% ABV, 27 IBU)
Dry Ground Brewing Company
3121 Broadway Street
Paducah, (270) 201-2096
Suggested Brew: Yardbird Doppelbock (8.5% ABV, 35 IBU)
White Squirrel Brewery
871 Broadway Avenue
Bowling Green, (270) 904-1573
Suggested Brew: White Squirrel Pale Ale (6.5% ABV, 80 IBU)
West Sixth Brewing
501 West Sixth Street, Suite 100
Lexington, (859) 705-0915
Suggested Brew: West Sixth IPA (7% ABV, 27 IBU 80)